Cradle of Biodiversity
Raja Ampat Raises the Species-Count BarThe beating heart of the coral universe lies on the far side of the world. It is a place called Raja Ampat, an outpost of rugged islands that hovers off the northwest tip of the Bird's Head Peninsula in the remote Indonesian province of West Papua. Adventurer, vintage Harley-Davidson expert and World War II historian Max Ammer think Indiana Jones without the hat left Holland in 1980 to look for jeeps and sunken airplane wrecks throughout this corner of Indonesia. He found the jeeps, but he stayed for the coral. Max developed Papua Diving, a conservation-minded, land-based diving operation on Kri Island, a two-hour speedboat ride across the Dampier Strait north of Sorong, the portal that links the world to this marine kingdom.
Max eventually guided renowned ichthyologist Dr. Gerry Allen for a quick dive near Kri Point in 1998. (Gerry was actually there to count fish in freshwater streams.) It was an "aha!" moment for Gerry, who describes his maiden dive as swimming through reefs on steroids. With a bit of persistent nudging, Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy conducted marine assessments in Raja Ampat and realized they'd hit the biodiversity jackpot, wildly exceeding existing marine-species counts across the globe. Surveys were expanded across the Bird's Head Seascape, the 70,600-square-mile region that includes Raja Ampat and her sister regions Fakfak and Cenderawasih Bay. Each survey broke a record. The collective final tally for the seascape: 1,300 species of fish, 600 coral species (the Caribbean has fewer than 70 species of reef-building coral) and 700 mollusks. They're still counting.
Gateway to Riches
Raja Ampat's reefs are on something more powerful than steroids they are on an oceanic crossroads where Pacific and Indian ocean species collide. The nutrient-rich North New Guinea Coastal Current pushes through the Dampier Strait like a fire hose under pressure. It's so strong that the Americans bombed a small island near Kri Point because it looked like a Japanese patrol boat trailing a wake. These big currents sweep nutrients into the 1,500-island archipelago rich with habitat. There are deep protected bays, hidden lagoons, sand flats, and dense forests of blue-water mangroves zipping with halfbeaks and archerfish. Broad fringing reefs churn with fish life thick enough to obscure the sun but, sadly, the sharks are gone, lost to commercial fishing and bowls of shark-fin soup. Be forewarned, these aren't run-of-the-mill reefs with gentle clear-blue water and a few charming fish. Raja Ampat is an unruly frontier with "Big Casino" diving where the visibility and currents can be glorious or turn to hell in a heartbeat.
The archipelago's gateway is Sorong, a growing coastal town organized around a sweaty marine terminus jostling with water taxis, cargo ships, half-sunken hulls and beautiful, wooden Indonesian pinisis (sailing ships). Be prepared and patient; flights here are regularly irregular, and entire airlines have vanished in a single day, leaving travelers stranded at the Hotel Mariat Sorong not to be confused for one second with the four-star Marriott. This value-added version comes nicely equipped with hot water, a bed and a door.
From Sorong, live-aboards offer divers the luxury of exploring the archipelago from south to north. Before you know it, you're whisked from the small airport through the dank and decrepit harbor, and find yourself on a teak deck clutching a fruit drink while heading into marine wilderness. The southernmost Misool Island group teems with coral gardens, cave systems and mangroves. These southern waters boast blue holes at Jef Pele, towering burial caves at Tomolol, dramatic soft-coral walls at Wayalibit Channel, and schooling yellowtail barracuda and bigeye trevally at Fabiacet Rocks. The Nampale Blue Water Mangroves are northwest off Misool and are a short steam to seamount Masmas Ulit, known for giant groupers and passing pelagics.
Northwest of Misool, Kofiau and Walo islands are very popular for diving and the site of a record fish count. Continuing northward across the Dampier Strait brings you to the coral meadows of Melissa's Garden at Fam Island. A short steam away, the deep, winding passages of Aljui Bay at Waigeo Island offer incredible wall dives, superb muck diving with sassy spearing mantis shrimp, hordes of leaf and Ambon scorpionfish, solar nudibranchs and serious jewelry shopping. This nutrient-rich basin produces some of the world's finest South Sea pearls, cultivated by resident Cendana Pearl Farm. The Wayag Island group in the north offers the best topside scenery in the entire archipelago. A challenging hike is rewarded with a chance of an aerial view of the lush green beehive islets marching across an aquamarine sea. But quite truthfully, the kayaking is better than the diving here.
Kri Island and its surrounding reefs are at the center of Raja Ampat. The currents of the Dampier Strait pour past the front door of Sorido Bay Resort and Kri Eco Resort located on this long and narrow island. This river of plankton fuels some of the best reef systems in all of Raja Ampat. Kri's house reef, Cape Kri, and offshore Sardine Reef vibrate with life like a bass amplifier. Caves, overhangs and table corals are choked with massive schools of glassy sweepers and cardinalfish. Layers of sea fans, soft corals, sponges and crinoids compete for space on coral bommies. Clouds of surgeonfish and fusiliers flow like a river overhead.
There are surprises here. A secret passage winds between Waigeo and Gam islands, where giant orange gorgonians bloom under a rainforest canopy. Thousands of moon jellyfish gather like storm clouds at dusk in a small cove in Gam Bay, and a layer of leather corals covers the bottom of crystal-clear mangroves like designer carpets. The powerful, plankton-rich currents attract manta ray conventions. At Manta Point, a shallow coral ridge plummets into empty blue. The rise is a major cleaning station for squadrons of giant manta rays. As many as 15 to 20 line up to be cleaned by dozens of wrasse that work with the precision of an Indianapolis pit crew. The dive is a parachute jump into a liquid cyclone of currents descend too slowly and miss the ridge only to be swept away.
Mike's Point and Mioskon Island are favorite dives in the Dampier area. Mike's Point is a small island surrounded by a plateau reef with forests of soft coral and delicate table corals the size of MINI Coopers. Nearby, Mioskon reef surrounds an oval island home to a large colony of fruit bats that hang from the trees like Halloween decorations. A giant clam anchors the corner of this long reef in an amphitheater of coral bommies covered with soft corals and moving veils of glassy sweepers. Farther down the reef, small groves of coral trees are filled with shifting schools of many lined sweetlips, and large wobbegong sharks recline in chalice coral couches waiting for the possibility of a passing meal.
Raja Ampat lies hidden in a remote corner of the sea, surrounded by the world's most-complicated island geography. It's a coral universe with enormous currents and tides bathing the reefs in an endless plankton stew. The combination of an infinite range of habitat and rich currents has produced an undersea wilderness dripping in biodiversity. A true Last Place on Earth.
Raja Ampat Listings
Pelagian Dive Yacht